Providing health advice for mums-to-be

University of Portsmouth

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Researchers at the University of Portsmouth have overturned Department of Health official guidelines on mums-to-be eating peanuts during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Previous guidelines advocated avoiding nuts in allergic families, but research undertaken by the Portsmouth team revealed that the advice was not followed appropriately. For example, first-time mothers were avoiding peanuts and not those with a family history as advised by the Department of Health. The advice has therefore been withdrawn, until further evidence is available.

Food hypersensitivity (FHS) is an adverse reaction following food ingestion. While there is evidence demonstrating an increase in allergies such as asthma and atopic dermatitis, there had been a lack of studies looking into FHS.

The Foods Standards Agency commissioned the Portsmouth team to establish the first UK birth cohort on the Isle of Wight to investigate just how common FHS was. The researchers specifically investigated peanut allergy – which is the most common cause of food induced anaphylaxis in children – in a whole population birth cohort (total 969 children) born between 2001 and 2002. This cohort was compared with previous cohorts of children born in the same geographical location.

As well as establishing how many children had a food allergy at ages one, two and three, they also found that government advice to avoid peanuts was being followed by mothers regardless of their family history of allergy – which could have had a detrimental effect and actually increase the frequency of allergies in children.

The study also challenged the previously held perception that peanut and other food allergies are increasing. Instead they demonstrated that it has changed over time, peaking in children born in 1994-96 but since the late 1990s seems to have stabilised.

Their research has been recognised worldwide and informed policy decisions. For example, it led to changes in Department of Health guidelines, particularly advice that pregnant women (who are allergic or for whom the father or any sibling had an allergy) should avoid peanuts during pregnancy and breastfeeding. The revised guidelines and advice has benefitted groups throughout the health service including parents, GPs and allergy services and is being included in information and books given to mothers about pregnancy and baby development.

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